EDITORIAL: Utilities should start plotting nuclear-free future for themselves
Electric utilities are still warning that a lack of nuclear power generation will cause power shortages and rises in electricity bills. It’s time for them to stop emphasizing such concerns in their attempts to win public support for restarting idled nuclear reactors.
Prospects are bleak for bringing reactors back online by summer, so the utilities have worked out plans to avoid a summer power crunch without using nuclear energy. If these plans are carried out, this summer will be the first without nuclear power generation since the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolded in March 2011.
Some utilities, however, will have to walk a tightrope. Kansai Electric Power Co., which was excessively dependent on nuclear power generation, will have only a 3-percent reserve capacity during the summer peak-demand period. That means efforts to reduce power consumption should not be relaxed.
But the company’s power supply plan for the summer indicates an amazing change in society. It was only two years ago that Kansai Electric Power restarted reactors at its Oi nuclear power plant, claiming that an absence of nuclear power would force it to carry out a rolling blackout, which could seriously affect corporate activities and operations of medical institutions.
The great change has been powered by larger-than-expected cuts in power consumption achieved through efforts by society as a whole.
In that summer, the power saving in the region served by Kansai Electric, which then relied on the Oi plant, was three times larger than expected. As it turned out, theoretically, there would not have been a power shortage in the region even if all nuclear plants had been offline.
The summer last year was among the hottest in history, but there were no signs that power-saving efforts slackened.
Based on its experiences during the past two summers, Kansai Electric has estimated that the amount of electricity to be saved this summer will be equivalent to the total power output from two and a half nuclear reactors. Ardent power-saving efforts by consumers made as a serious response to the disastrous nuclear accident have effectively created a huge power surplus.
In contrast, utilities have failed to make serious efforts to ensure a power supply without nuclear plants.
They have kept arguing that nuclear power generation is indispensable for a stable power supply, and they have applied for permission to restart reactors, including even risky ones close to densely populated areas.
Meanwhile, they have been dragging their feet on establishing a system that makes it easier for them to buy surplus power from other utilities serving different regions. To prevent a power crunch, Kansai Electric plans to buy electricity from Tokyo Electric Power Co. for the first time this summer. The amount of power traded between the nation’s eastern and western regions, which run at different frequencies, has increased by only 20 percent since the Fukushima disaster.
Most utilities have remained dependent on old thermal power plants with low energy efficiency. They have kept saying these thermal plants could break down at any time and force them to raise electricity charges to cover growing fuel costs. It was only very recently that utilities began to move toward building state-of-the-art, energy efficient thermal power plants.
The Diet is now considering a bill to further deregulate the power market. The nation is heading into a new era when consumers including households as well as businesses can freely choose their power suppliers. The market has already been liberalized for large consumers like local governments. A growing number of them are switching to newly created power suppliers that offer cheaper electricity.
Unless they change their way of thinking, large established utilities, which have long held regional monopolies, will find it increasingly hard to secure their long-term viability.
People who are making power-saving efforts want to see the establishment of a system that ensures a safe and stable supply of electricity at the lowest possible cost. It is vital to expand the use of renewable energy sources and build up a reliable program for mutual supplies of surplus power for more efficient use of limited resources.
The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant has revealed huge potential risks lurking in nuclear power generation. From this point of view, the efforts of utilities to restart their nuclear power plants, driven by the fact that they have poured huge amounts of money into the facilities, appear to reflect a ruefully inward-looking attitude.
--The Asahi Shimbun, April 28